As a big a hip-hop fan, I often find myself explaining the genre to my husband who is Colombian. Hip-hop didn’t really resonate with his friends and family in the southern Americas. Why would it when they have reggaetón, salsa, etc.? While he often struggles with the fast-paced lyrics and slang, one word always distinctly sticks out to him. The n-word.
Part of our discussions of the genre includes why black hip-hop artists often use the n-word and its varied forms. When he first asked me, I said, “because they can use that word, and we can’t. That’s it.” And while we are people of color who are about fives shades browner than most “white” folk, the word was off limits for us, too. No one had to tell me this. I just knew.
Recently, rapper Kendrick Lamar was in the news for stopping a white fan’s performance of his song “m.A.A.d city.” She said the word “nigga” twice before he stopped the music. The fan responded with, “Am I not cool enough for you? What’s up, bro?”.
Now, before addressing the use of the n-word by a white girl from Alabama, it’s important first to address her comment to Lamar’s stopping the concert. As a big fan, I find her “Am I not cool enough for you?” statement odd and even insulting. Her word choice illustrates her view of Lamar as simply an entertainer and not an artist.
Being a frequent concert attendee, I’ve seen plenty of fans pulled on stage. Hell, I’ve dreamt of being one. If Lamar had pulled me on stage, I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to say anything close to that, much less after saying the word “nigga” on a black man’s stage. Her indignation at being stopped, clearly illustrates why she shouldn’t have used the word. Her language and manner of speaking to Lamar, a Pulitzer Prize winner, clearly shows her ignorance and privilege.
After it happened, my husband asked what I thought about the belief some had that Lamar had set the white fan up. I shook my head. In videos that have surfaced, Lamar is heard saying, “My boy Roland kinda knew the rules a little bit,” which illustrates this is not the first fan Lamar has brought on stage.
“She just shouldn’t have said it. White people can’t say that word,” I said.
“But why? Maybe Kendrick just shouldn’t call up white fans,” he replied barely concealing his smile.
At this point, I knew he was disagreeing for disagreement sake. But, it got me thinking, and I fell silent as we cleaned up after post-dinner mess. Finally, I said, “White people, slave owners, whoever was part of that horrible process, took everything from them. They robbed them of their home, their culture, their language. Black people have taken an ugly word and made it their own. Why can’t they have this one word?”
Now, I don’t know if that’s the best phrasing, but it got me thinking about my own culture and language. Did I have a word I said with my family/friends I wouldn’t like to hear from a white person? The first point came to me then. I, speak Spanish. While I’m not entirely fluent, I have a link to my heritage. My Spanish and all the words I know are mine. This cannot be said for Black Americans. Language was stolen, restricted, and beat from them. My Spanish words can’t be taken from me, and one of them, my childhood nickname “Prieta,” a term of endearment which roughly translates to brown girl, would sound salted and bitter coming from a non-person of color’s mouth. Even strangers have called me “morenita,” little brown girl, but because they speak Spanish, I know how it is meant.
There is the other point that came to me. Intention. I’ve written about having to explain “Prieta” to white people and how they seemed unconvinced it could be a term of endearment. Their lack of understanding sours the word. In a writing workshop I gave this semester, I read a piece written about the word “¿Y la Prieta?” and after a white woman joked that if she saw me outside of the classroom setting, she would great me with “Hi, Prieta.” I stiffly smiled because as she said it, I knew that word should not be in her mouth. While I couldn’t see Lamar’s face on stage in the videos I found online; I had to wonder what it might have felt like to have given a platform to a white fan and see words he wrote turned into something thorny and hurtful.
In discussion boards, showing the Lamar incident, online user TK commented, “If he respected the word, he wouldn’t make it the main part of a song. It’s racist to have words that only certain races can say.” I wanted to laugh but realize that many people think this. Why do black people use the word if everyone can’t say it? Author Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a great explanation to a student question on the use of the word,
For white people, I think the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word “nigger” is actually very, very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world, and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t join in and do. So, I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.
In a world where Black Americans can’t have a BBQ in the park, sit in a Starbuck’s, or take a nap at their college campus without having the police called, Coates illustrates a brilliant point that white people can’t seem to wrap their minds around. Because nothing has ever been “off limits” to them, why is this one word?
While reading more about the topic, I stumbled across the Netflix show “Dear White People” discussing episode five of the series. A similar situation of a white person singing along to a song and using the n-word at a frat party occurs. But, unlike merely being taken off stage, the show takes a realistic somber turn. The main character Reggie, played by Marque Richardson, has a confrontation with a white police officer who only requests identification from him, a black student, in a room full of white faces then proceeds to draw his weapon. On stage, Lamar had the power to stop the language. In the show, Reggie’s character clearly illustrates the painful vulnerability of being a Black American. The episode shows the constant need to ask for a word not be used while simultaneously highlighting the lack of cultural understanding of not only language but real-life experiences.
Further reading on the topic led me to Arizona State University Professor Neal A. Lester who has taught entire courses on the n-word. In article “Straight Talk about the N-Word,” Lester says it best, “It’s about self-education and self-critique, not trying to control others by telling them what to say or how to think, but rather trying to figure out how we think and how the words we use mirror our thinking.” I would ask white people to take a moment to reflect on the importance and need to say the word. I would ask why he/she feels the need to control the words that come out of Black Americans. The n-word is a double-edged sword, and while language cannot be owned, it consistently proves to show how impactful it can be.
Following the incident, Lamar continued the show with “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe.” Fans applauded this interpreting the song as a giant flick on the white fan’s hand. However, the magic in Lamar’s writing is the subtle messages he wraps in the obvious every day vernacular. On the surface, the song seems clear; however, metaphors such as this, “How can I paint this picture/When the color blind is hangin’ with you?” illustrate Lamar’s complexity as an artist and activist. The song speaks not only his discontent with current hip-hop music production, but the double entendre addresses Lamar’s role as a black artist.
In the United States, racial tensions are exponentially charged. From tiki torch carrying white supremacist in Charlottesville, VA to similar groups in Tennessee chanting, “Closed borders, white nation, now we start the deportation, the environment seems bleak for people of color. In the middle of all of this, Lamar asks how artists of color can paint vivid works of art if people continue to see willfully only white and black. More than ever, instead of asking, “Am I not cool enough for you, bro?” we should be asking, “How can we be cool, bro?”
Bain, Marc. “Ta-Nehisi Coates Gently Explains Why White People Can’t Use the n-Word.” Quartzy, Quartz, 13 Nov. 2017.
Blay, Zeba. “Why Explaining ‘The N-Word’ To Non-Black People Is So Damn Exhausting.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 9 May 2017.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Politics and the African-American Human Language.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 5 Mar. 2014.
Coates, Ta-nehisi. “In Defense of a Loaded Word.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Nov. 2013.